MARCH 29, 2020
LENT 5 YEAR A
ST LUKE’S, BLACKSTONE, VA.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right. Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The Lord be with you!
What a wonderful confession of faith.
Mary usually gets the good press in the Gospels for “having chosen the better way”: it will be Mary who will later go early on Easter Day to another tomb in a garden to weep.
Today we look at Martha, and hear her remarkable declaration of faith in the Lord, unlike any other so far in the Gospels.
Martha’s faith is eloquent; so complete, direct, clear and heartfelt: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
BE LIKE MARTHA! Martha speaks to our Lord from a heart filled faith, and hope, and love. And yet, grief: her brother has died just a few days ago. Her confession of faith in the resurrection at the last day is not quite like ours, because it cannot yet rest on the sure foundation of our Lord’s Easter resurrection from the dead to eternal life. And yet it rests on a belief that Jesus is of God, is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ. As does yours, and mine. Martha, not yet a Christian (of course!), shares the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead at the last day. Many Jews in that time believed in such a resurrection. But Jesus’ reply to her is less a consolation as a challenge: Jesus says to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." Martha, even in the midst of her grieving, puts her trust in the Lord.
Martha and Mary wept at the death of their brother, Lazarus. And look: the Jews wept with them, gathered in community to mourn. And our Lord Jesus Christ also wept. Tears, we are taught, are the “lost salt gift of love.” Funerals which are coolly dry-eyed leave clergy wondering if the departed was loved at all by those attending the funeral. But there were tears that day at the tomb. And no doubt, there were tears when they prayed together during Lazarus’ illness and when he slipped away into death. Did Jews pray for the sick to recover? Yes, they did. We know some of their agonized prayers for the sick and dying.
Some people tell us, in this time of COVID-19, that prayer is the answer. Science is also God’s answer to our prayers; medical science that was not available in Jesus’ day, is very much God’s answer to prayer. Thanks be to God for face masks and ventilators and sterile hospital wards and surgical gowns and the skills and knowledge of those who treat the sick.
Our prayers are heard by God: they reach up to God and I firmly believe, are heard there with infinite love and pity. Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, died, as later did Mary, and Martha, and all those gathered weeping at the tomb. Lazarus had to face death again. His was NOT the resurrection to eternal life. His was life as we know it, reconstituted by God in an act of re-creation. The technical word is resuscitation. It returns someone to ordinary life, ending as all life does, eventually in death.
Look closely: our Lord focuses on his friend Lazarus. What do we see happening there? Why Lazarus? Why not just commiserate with Martha and Mary and share in community?
Unlike Martha, and Mary, and Jesus, and the Jews, we may not, for now, gather in community to weep together. We may not, for an indefinite time, gather to grieve, mourn, or hold a celebration of the life of the departed. A virus makes actual community impossible. The unbreakable spiritual community we share is that we are one in Jesus Christ our risen Lord: risen, ascended, glorified.
Martha, however, is not abandoned to grieve on her own: her brother has died but she still has a family and a community to return to. Together they will share their grief, together they will mourn and comfort one another. We can’t do that now. Our Bishop tells us, her clergy, that we cannot gather to mourn and come together as a grieving (yet, being Christian, rejoicing) community, as we normally have done.
Here is what struck me: our Lord reaches out to Lazarus, who is alone, being dead beyond hope, or faith, or conscious feelings of any kind; beyond the reciprocities of love. There is no thought of the survival of his soul in heaven. Lazarus is dead: he has begun the process which turns every living being back into the inanimate elements from which it has been created.
Only the power of God the creator can bring life out of dead matter. God did so in the beginning, transforming the inanimate elements of the universe into the biosphere of this planet earth. Creation and recreation of life and consciousness has always happened, but not yet resurrection to eternal life. Not until the Holy Miracle of the Resurrection to eternal life of Jesus. In the resurrection of Jesus, a new community is formed, one in which there may still be grief but it is set in a crown of love.
Creation of life is a miracle which God has performed before on a cosmic scale, and is still performing. God in Jesus reverses the processes of death and Lazarus comes forth and others unbind him. It is Lazarus, the silent, isolated victim of then untreatable illness and death with whom Jesus identifies.
Read today’s Gospel in this unparalleled time of social distance. Isolation is hard. But self-pity for our “isolation”? Had we forgotten that we are all always one in the Spirit of God and are given the gift of eternal life? No Christian could ever think they were isolated.
The Christian dead who die in the faith of the Lord, do not require our commending them to God. They were God’s creation and by his love, redeemed already. God was with them in their illness and at the moment of their death from whatever cause, just as God will always be present to give the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit to those who mourn.
Why don’t I tell you what I really think? I believe that this world’s a tragedy redeemed by God. Nothing less than that carries the weight of the grief and sin of the world, but carries all that weight to be placed at the foot of the cross of Jesus. The story of the raising of Lazarus has much to tell us. But it is the story of a tragedy redeemed by God. That’s what I believe the resurrection of our Lord teaches too. Therefore have courage. Therefore have faith. And pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.”
Too heavy a sermon? Well, it is Lent, a serious time. Lent ends in Easter. Life ends in death and then the Christian hope is realized in eternal life in the Lord, who by God’s love, created and redeemed us all. I don’t think that’s too heavy at all.
God bless us all.